LAS VEGAS — Jon Jones has spent the past three years at his New Mexico home focusing on being with family, hunting and getting ready for his big comeback.
He hired a team to help him get ready for Saturday night when he will take a step up to the heavyweight division and attempt to end any doubt — if any remains — that he is the greatest fighter in UFC history.
He made that case as a light heavyweight by winning a record 14 title fights and is on a UFC-best 18-match unbeaten streak, giving him a 26-1 record with one no-contest.
Next up is France’s Ciryl Gane, at 11-1 the top-ranked heavyweight.
A victory at T-Mobli Arena also could put Jones, 35, back in the conversation for top pound-for-pound fighter, a spot currently held by featherweight Alexander Volkanovski.
“I’m fighting to be the greatest fighter ever, not to be the best pound-for-pound right now,” Jones said.
His fight against Gane for the vacant heavyweight title is the headline event of UFC 285 (ESPN Plus).
In the top undercard match, women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko (23-3) of Kyrgyzstan faces sixth-ranked Alexa Grasso (15-3) of Mexico.
Just about all eyes will be on Jones, who not only must prove that he can be just as successful is the heavyweight division as he was one level down, but also that the long layoff won’t negatively affect him.
Jones said he hasn’t been idle even if he hasn’t fought in the UFC since defeating Dominick Reyes by unanimous decision on Feb. 8, 2020. He said he has become stronger than ever, even if his body isn’t as toned. But Jones said that’s because of the added weight to fight in the highest class.
Middleweight Dricus Du Plessis, who will face Derek Brunson in a preliminary bout, said he believes Jones will win and that he has the mental and physical ability to overcome such a long time away from competition. But Du Plessis also offered a word of caution.
“Three years is a very long time,” Du Plessis said. “I don’t think he’s a guy that’s going to struggle with ring rust. I just think the game changes and it changes fast, especially these past two years. The game waits for no man.”
Jones, for his part, is confident this fight will end like so many others.
He questioned Gane’s willingness to fight, saying it didn’t show up when he lost to Francis Ngannou by unanimous decision on Jan. 22, 2022.
“I just don’t see myself losing to a guy like Ciryl Gane,” Jones said.
Should Gane, a plus-138 underdog according to FanDuel Sportsbook, pull off the victory, it would set him up for a potentially big year. Not only would he claim the heavyweight belt, a win would put him in line for a meeting with second-ranked Stipe Miocic. ESPN reported Friday night that UFC president Dana White told reporters Miocic “absolutely” would face the winner of the Jones-Gane bout.
“This is going to put my resume at the high level for sure,” said Gane, 32.
Even a victory, however, wouldn’t put his resume on the same level as Jones.
But it’s not all about what happens in the octagon with Jones. He was suspended for a year in 2016 for a failed drug test and had his 2017 victory over Daniel Cormier turned into a no-contest after another drug test came up positive.
The United States Anti-Doping Agency changed the criteria for what constitutes a positive test in 2019, and Jones let it be known he would have passed under the revised standards.
“People considered me a cheater,” Jones said. “Now if that same rule would have applied back then, it would have never even made the media. It would have never been a deal at all. My win over Daniel Cormier would not be a no-contest. It would be a knockout. So I’m hoping that with these rule changes, maybe we can go back and make that no-contest a win. That would mean a lot to me.
“I took the bullet for this sport … and I’m glad that fighters in the future get to avoid what I went through. It was hell to be considered a steroid cheat. And I’m glad that that people will see clearly now that I never was and feel set free.”